Unlike pain associated with an injury or illness, nerve pain (also called neuropathic pain) is caused by the nervous system mistakenly transmitting signals to the brain without a specific trigger. It is often caused by disease or damage to the nervous system, including various chronic conditions and affects up to 8 per cent of the population.
Because the symptoms can come and go and do not have an obvious injury associated with them, nerve pain can be difficult to diagnose. Sufferers variously describe the pain as like an electric shock, pins and needles or feeling burning heat or freezing cold.
Because it can be hard to pin down, a GP will start with a full physical examination including testing the strength of your muscles, reflex checks and seeing how sensitive you are to touch and pinpricks. An important aspect in a neuropathic pain diagnosis is listening to how the patient describes the pain – where it occurs, how frequently, on what occasions and what it feels like.
If your GP suspects nerve pain then he or she may follow up with a variety of other tests.
Nerve conductivity measures how quickly your nervous system carries signals while electromyography records electrical activity in the muscles to see how they respond to nerve signals.
Blood tests can be used to try and identify other conditions which may be involved such as diabetes or a thyroid problem.
CT or MRI scans can look for anything which could be pressing on a nerve and causing it send a false signal such as a herniated disc or spinal arthritis.
Based on your symptoms and test findings, your doctor may consider a range of treatment options or even a combination of approaches.
If you are experiencing unusual symptoms or sensations that you believe could be nerve pain then it is important to consult your GP for a diagnosis and treatment plan.
- 1. Gilron, Baron and Jensen. Neuropathic pain: principles of diagnosis and treatment. Mayo Clin Proc. 2015 Apr;90(4):532-45.